The Differences between American English and British English.

American English and British English are two mutually intelligible forms of the same language. English has become one of the most commonly spoken languages on earth. More people speak English as a second language than any other language. People use English on every continent and in almost every country. Being so widespread has had an effect on the English language. English sounds and looks different, depending on where you are. In this post we will be considering a well-known contrast between English language conventions in Britain and America.

Where does this Difference Come From?

Anybody who owns a word processor knows that there are two distinct spelling settings for “United States” and “United Kingdom”. This all began with Noah Webster, who lived in the late 18th century.  Webster was an author, teacher and politician. A patriotic American, he wanted to move away from British English. He saw this as a way of asserting America’s independence.

What does this have to do with IELTS?

In the IELTS writing test, good spelling is essential. There is some leeway for error, but you need to write clearly. The examiner should understand you without difficulty. However, you don’t have to use one particular set of spelling conventions. Both the British and American conventions are correct. You should stick to whichever framework you know best. Be consistent, but don’t attempt to relearn everything simply to be more “American” or more “British”.

Just how Different are American and British English?

Continuing with our story, Noah embarked on a mission to change things. He thought it would be a good idea to teach people to spell words the way they heard them.  Like many people, he disliked the inconsistency between spelling and pronunciation in English.

It was Noah who dropped the ‘u’ in many words.  For example, “colour” became “color”. “Honour” became “honor” and “labour” became “labor”.  Other words also changed. “Organise”, became “organize”, “recognise”, became “recognize”. The British spelling rule of “re” in many words changed to “er”.  “Theatre” became “theater” and “centre” became “center”. Many of us may not even notice these differences. Right now, spellcheck is automatically changing the words in this article to the American spelling. As time wore on, these changes accumulated. Nowadays, a modern word processor needs two distinct systems to validate spelling.

Vocabulary Differences between American English and British English

There are many differences in vocabulary between American English and British English.  However, British and American people communicate mostly without difficulty. This is because we all rely on context when we communicate. An American person might live in an apartment. Around the corner there is a drugstore that sells band aids. A British person is more likely to live a flat near to a chemist that sells plasters. If you are a South African, you probably wouldn’t say “drugstore” or “chemist”, but “pharmacy”.  But all three of these people will be able to understand each other by listening with some care.

For the IELTS writing and speaking exams, stick to what you know. There is no need to be artificial. In fact, this might actually hurt your score. During the listening exam, you will listen to people with different accents. There might be some variation in vocabulary. Don’t worry if you hear a dialogue about a vacation, a pair of sneakers and a sweater. You will know that the person is going on holiday. You will also glean that he or she needs a jersey/jumper and some trainers.  

At the same time, you should avoid using words that are unique to your region or country. Slang terminology could make it difficult to understand you. You have to use your discretion in this regard.

Grammatical Differences between American English and British English

There are also some subtle differences in grammar. Because cultures affect each other through media and travel, the lines are not always clean, so the two systems overlap. A British person is very unlikely to complain of having gotten ill over the weekend. Gotten is a distinctively American use of the participle form of got.

Conditional clauses can also sound different. In Britain, you might hear someone say: “I would’ve told you if I’d known”. In America, the same sentence could be: “I would’ve told you if I had have known”. Verbal past tense endings with a final t in British English (spelt, dreamt) are less common in American English. The American tendency is to do this with ed (spelled, dreamed). A writer could fill whole books with these differences, but there is a useful summary here.

Variation and the IELTS Exam

You don’t need to overhaul your command of English to conform to one particular system. If you are not getting the score you need for writing, it is unlikely that this is the reason. All of us tend to lean more towards one than the other. It’s a good idea to identify this in your case when preparing for the exam, with a view to consistency.

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